Earth Day 2015. It is spring. For the last several years, I have been conducting an experiment in gardening. The most recent element of this experiment has been edible ginger—a popular ingredient in Asian cooking. A fascinating and delicious rhizome, ginger grows slowly, so you plant it around March and harvest it around December.
Garden plants such as ginger, lettuce, or carrots, give us food—but in order to do so, they depend on the gardener to water them, to pull the weeds, to add the compost. In order to survive and give me its gift of savory spice, I need to care for this plant or this garden and in doing so be in a kind of relationship with it, for it depends on me for its survival.
In the Hawaiian language, the word for such care is mālama (mah-la-ma). But its deeper meaning is more than just the feeding and watering of a plant. When you mālama, you enter into a kind of relationship. I should look at my plants to see if the soil is too dry, to see if this plant is stressed and needs more water, to test the soil to see if it lacks nutrients, has a fungus, or an insect problem. I want it to produce good roots. I want to eat of this harvest. To do all of this I must m?lama this plant for it, too, is a gift.
The Hokuleʻa and the Hikianalia*, two voyaging canoes of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, set sail in the summer of 2014 for an around-the-world voyage using only traditional, ancient Polynesian navigation techniques. Called Mālama Honua, this epic worldwide voyage “is to address the global issues that face all of us from global warming to resource sustainability,” especially for those who live within Ocean communities.
Mālama Honua literally means “Care of the Earth.” At its heart it means that we are in a relationship with this planet. Sustainability is a keyword for this millennium. It’s easy to talk about taking care of things like plants, and the environment—the ocean, rivers, lakes, and the need for clean air. Here in Hawaiʻi, the most remote island chain in the world, we are acutely aware of the effects of sea level rise and climate change. Many of our schools have plans and programs that address issues of sustainability. I am sure many a fellow chaplain has preached a sermon and taught a lesson on the gift of Creation. From the beginning, God has entrusted us as stewards—caretakers of this fragile Earth.
The harder work is when it comes to us as people. How do we mālama, or care for each other? What about the sustainability of our human relationships?
In the letter to the Colossians, Paul writes “clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” (Col 3.12) He goes on to say how this community should treat each other, even when they disagree. Forgiveness and love are key components. Ultimately, it is love that binds everything together and for the Colossians, a Christian community, it is the love centered on Christ that serves as the guiding light.
As Episcopal schools we reflect the wide diversity of this very world that God has given us. We see the rainbow of races, languages, and gifts and talents in the faces of the children who enter our classrooms and sit in our chapels and in the families who support their education and their efforts. Regardless of our traditions, when we m?lama, when we care for the earth, we are called to put on the clothing of compassion, kindness, humility, and patience. When we mālama one another, true care and compassion means that we recognize and honor the relationship that exists with a fellow human being whether they are friend or stranger.
To live with a spirit of mālama is to live knowing that your responsibility is to take all that you have been given—your gifts, your talents, even your treasure—and to use those gifts for the care and wellbeing of your relationships, your communities, and the world around you.
Mālama is not just about the planet or the environment, but is truly about all aspects of our lives. It is about giving and receiving forgiveness. It is about clothing ourselves in compassion, kindness, and humility. It’s about taking care of each other, from our toys, to plants, and to all creatures big and small. It’s about going the extra mile. It’s about loving your neighbor as yourself. It’s about living out the values that lie at the heart of the Spirit.
*Pronunciation guide: Hokuleʻa (Hoe-ku-lay-ah) Hikianalia (Hee-kee-ah-nah-lee-ah)
The Rev. Daniel L. Leatherman is Chaplain at the ʻIolani School in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi. Founded in 1863 by King Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma of Hawaii, ʻIolani School serves 1,887 students in grades K–12.